“If I knew the answer to that, I would have done it earlier,” jokes Thomas Mars, singer with French electro- poppers Phoenix, when asked how his band of perennially stylish underachievers has been transformed into a mainstream, gloriously out-of-place Grammy winning act of the moment.
As turnarounds in fortunes go, it’s quite a story. After nearly 10 years of making chic, 1980s-infused dance-pop anthems that attracted fashionista endorsement and cult adoration but failed to make significant dents into the mainstream, Phoenix (completed by Deck D’Arcy on bass, and guitarists Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz) are suddenly one of the most sought after bands in the world — quite a change from the start of 2009 when, as Mars readily admits from the Los Angeles home he shares with film director girlfriend Sofia Coppola, Phoenix were unsigned and lacking direction.
Yet an adventurous and often fraught songwriting period (more on this later) culminated with the release of the ace up Phoenix’s sleeve in the form of single “1901,” made available as a free download in February last year “to see if anyone was still interested.”
A fizzy pop high that yearns nostalgically for a bygone Paris, it sent the cool kids in the blogosphere delirious, lighting a blue touch paper of buzz that has yet to halt. That meant when the accompanying, Philippe Zdar-produced album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” was unleashed last May, an expectant world opened its arms gleefully. Phoenix had indeed finally risen, and it has left Mars, genial and well-spirited throughout our conversation, slightly nonplussed.
“I have no idea why it’s happened,” he says. “But for the first time, we’ve put a record out the way we wanted. That was never possible on a big record label. We probably wouldn’t exist without that connection with people. There are less and less people between you and the people who enjoy your music, which makes it easier to be heard. Without this, we wouldn’t be popular. It’s like we’re free at last.”
Emphasis should be placed on “at last.” Phoenix were formed in 1998 in the Parisian suburb of Versailles, an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll landscape placed on the contemporary music map by the two-buses-at-once successes of Daft Punk and Air. Debut album “United” (2000) received critical approval, although subsequent releases (2004’s “Alphabetic” and 2006’s “It’s Never Been like That”) never quite fulfilled their obvious promise. When EMI lost patience and pulled the plug, a back-to-the-drawing-board approach was undertaken to songwriting, as inspiration was hunted in the most anomalous of places.
“We were determined not to do things conventionally. We wanted to get around (and) find places that had light. We didn’t want traditional recording studios, so we stayed in New York hotels, wrote on boats in Paris. We needed that change.”
He begins to laugh nervously. “And I know this may sound silly in a recession, but we wanted to get rid of our money, so we just spent it all. We needed to start again. With no money and no record company, something just clicked.”
V2 agreed, signing Phoenix on the back of the anticipation caused by “1901.” It was an inspired move, as “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is an infectious sugar rush of a record, brimming with excitable pop anthems that last week deservedly beat stellar opposition in the form of Depeche Mode and Yeah Yeah Yeahs to win the Best Alternative Album Grammy.
In short, it’s the album The Killers would give up Mormonism to make, an amalgamation of all that makes Phoenix stirring.
“Well, it will always sound like us,” Mars says while letting out a resigned chuckle. “It’s us playing, so even when we try and get far away from what people think we sound like, it sounds like Phoenix. We don’t write songs for other people. We’d love to take a holiday from ourselves. But even though we can’t, we have confidence in what we do.”
That confidence spreads to the title of the album itself, a mischievously humorous nod to Mozart that Mars triumphantly describes as tantamount to “drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
A brave decision?
“We saw it is a leap of faith. We were cagey at first, but then thought, ‘Let’s not be vulnerable’. It’s not about us telling the world we are the best; it’s like Andy Warhol, taking something beautiful and messing it up. It’s also to do with Versailles. Everything in Versailles is really old, and it is almost sacrilege to create something new. We thought it was symbolic.”
It doesn’t sound like Versailles was an easy place to play rock music in their formative years.
“Exactly. We didn’t start out to get girls or to get attention, because there were no girls and nobody to pay attention,” he says with perfect comic timing. “It felt rebellious. We were selfish. We didn’t want anyone to like our music. The more people we pleased, the more scared we got. If you start with ideas to please people, you are artistically uninteresting.”
As it was, pleasing people in their native France proved difficult enough when Phoenix’s decision to eschew their mother tongue — influenced by Mars’ preadolescent love of Michael Jackson and Prince, and later obsession with My Bloody Valentine — became a constant source of controversy.
“Singing in English was a big problem,” he admits. “We played in English because we were playing English music. We grew up wanting to make something cryptic and mysterious; bands like My Bloody Valentine meant more than just music, almost like an art project. Many French bands started out like that but switched to French when the record company told them to. For us, we were singing the international language. Even now, it is still awkward for the French to accept. We play big places, but mainstream France can’t accept us.”
In their own understated manner, Phoenix are comparable to their artsy heroes — from their self-imposed boundaries (albums are restricted to 10 tracks and must clock in under 40 minutes long) to the fact all four members have been friends since childhood.
“We’re a gang, for sure,” he agrees with quiet emphasis. “I think it’s impractical the other way. When you start, you don’t think about the frontman getting more attention, or the songwriter getting more money. You start the project with no ego and big ideas about what you want.”
With the project bigger than ever, Phoenix’s victory-lap world tour has become unmissable, as Tokyo, with, as Mars describes, its “wonderful, living in the future, sci-fi vibe” will find out this month.
“We can have more fun now we get more attention,” Mars says excitedly. “There are two kinds of bands: The ones that get slicker, or the ones that we love, who seem to live on their own island, and if they become popular, it’s because they are different to everyone else. That’s how we see ourselves.”
Phoenix play Shibuya Ax, Tokyo, Feb. 25 and Club Quattro, Osaka, Feb. 26. Tickets are ¥5,800.
A ll four members of Phoenix —singer Thomas Mars, bassist Deck D’Arcy, and guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai — are childhood friends from Versailles, a suburb of Paris more famous for its architecture, historical culture and political significance than providing cutting edge, contemporary music. Despite this, during the mid-1990s three other Versailles-based artists rose to prominence:
Michel Gondry’s career began as a drummer in little known band Oui Oui, for whom he made promo videos. His big break came when Icelandic songstress Bjork asked him to direct the video for her song “Human Behaviour,” the start of a long-standing and successful working relationship. Gondry has also directed promos for Paul McCartney, The White Stripes, Radiohead, The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue. Gondry went on to make feature films, the most successful of which, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” won an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 2004.
After disbanding their group Darlin’ (the Beach Boys referencing punk act that also featured Phoenix’s Brancowitz), Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo formed Daft Punk, one of the most influential dance bands of all time. Reclusive and media-shy, Daft Punk have merged various genres of dance music (acid, techno, house and funk) with 1980s influenced guitars to create a totally original sound.
Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoi^t Dunckel were the pioneers of ambient electronica when their seminal debut, 1998’s “Moon Safari,” became a surprise worldwide success. Using synths, acoustic guitars and strings, the album’s success, helped by the hit “Sexy Boy,” spawned many imitators.